Wednesday, 17 December 2014

The Mind Parasites

Colin Wilson The Mind Parasites (1967)

Once was that I held Colin Wilson in relatively high regard, at least as the one author of cranky pseudoscience literature who stood a chance at being right about some of it. Somebody had given me a copy of Mysteries, of which I read about half. I tried it a couple of times, on each occasion losing interest around the halfway mark, at which point Colin started bringing in theories too wacky even for me. Later I realised that most of the good stuff had actually come from T.C. Lethbridge who wrote some broadly fascinating books about dowsing and the like. Mysteries tied Lethbridge in with some of Wilson's own ideas, most notably the one about a ladder of selves, which seems to work quite well as psychological analysis without requiring that one should take it as a literal description of the mechanism of the human mind.

Later I picked up The Outsider from a charity shop, but ended up giving it away because I couldn't be arsed to read it. The Outsider was amazing according to apparently everyone, an important book in the truest sense; and then my friend Paul Woods, who I seem to recall having had some dealings with Wilson in his capacity as a criminologist, always spoke very highly of the man, albeit not quite so highly as Wilson spoke of The Mind Parasites, his own novel:

Is it not time that we create a new type of novel? I think of a hatchet biting into a tree and making the chips fly, not an evasion of reality or a description of it, but an attack on it... What is needed is an existential realism. Like the social realism of the Soviets, yet biting much deeper; its attitude is not passive or pessimistic. In a qualified sense, it might be called practical; it wishes to change things. What it wishes to change I prefer to leave unsaid, it can be inferred from this book.

Really? This was a new type of novel? I was expecting some sort of - dunno - a mash-up of William Burroughs, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Guy Debord, massive ideas flying about left, right and centre, a book reading like nothing I have ever read before.

The Mind Parasites gets off to a tremendous start as a more contemporary take on Lovecraft's squelchy mythology with mysterious blocky cities discovered several miles underground, events unfolding with the chilling realism of a Quatermass serial; after which it all goes very much tits up. The underground city is revealed to have been a red herring for reasons which either remain unclear or are so poorly described that I've forgotten them. The true culprits are the mind parasites, malign incorporeal entities dwelling in the depths of the collective unconscious, or some other place which probably makes more sense if you've read either Jung or Huxley. These entities are the cause of war, racism, cruelty, inequality, suicide, boredom, accidents at work, and Doctor Who having been shite since it came back on the telly. Were it not for them we would all be telepathic supermen, at our full potential and qualified to lead the common herd of humanity to its destiny and all that good stuff. The thing that bothers me is that I suspect Wilson may actually have believed at least some of this crap.

A few years ago I made fumbling attempts to identify a literary genre which I provisionally named dinnerpunk based on it comprising poorly written yarns which come to their authors as they mow the lawns of their Surbiton homes as Marjorie is preparing dinner. They've read Biggles, several Ian Flemings, and it can't be that hard considering some of the fairies who make a living of it, so they're jolly well going to have a go. Dinnerpunk fiction tends to be written from an entirely male perspective, suggests a conservative view of the world, usually one fixating on some peculiar detail such as aviation history - because nutters are always into planes for some reason - and amongst the cast of chaps and renowned scientists, there's nearly always somebody identified simply as the Colonel. Dinnerpunk is the written equivalent to Bob Mortimer's Graham Lister character. It knows doctors and dentists, professional people...

Regrettably, after the tremendous start described above, The Mind Parasites reveals itself to be not merely a disappointment, but to be fully-leaded weapons grade dinnerpunk.

Neither is there any evidence to indicate that the crew of the Pallas intended to build a new civilisation on another planet. There were only three women on board. The number would surely have been higher if any such plan had been contemplated?

I should jolly well, say so. Our heroes are a team of top scientists who travel around in a gang of about fifteen for most of the book, routinely pooling their psychic powers to make the world a better place. Human history is a litany of woe thanks to the mind parasites, because it was them what made us do all that bad stuff like Hitler and that, which ironically is itself a typically right-wing narrative, the enemy and source of all woe being those people or things over there; it's because of them that we can't have nice stuff. Freed of the mind parasites, we are able to travel around in gangs of fifteen making stuff more good, even psychokinetically sending the moon crashing into the sun because that was where the mind parasites was all coming from innit. Except the mind parasites are actually ourselves, or at least ourselves what have failed to evolve into thinking, reasoning supermen, people who know doctors and dentists. Meanwhile the black nations of Africa unite and rise up against the white man because the mind parasites make them do it innit, just in case you mistakenly thought they might have had any other better reason to be pissed off.

Frankly, it's a complete fucking dog's dinner besides which even Lindsay Gutteridge's dinnerpunk tour de force Cold War in a Country Garden may as well be The Mayor of Casterbridge. The psychological discussion amounts to pseudoscientific bollocks of the kind which invariably namechecks Velikovsky, Gurdjieff, Madam Blavatsky and the usual wankers; there's barely a story to speak of; and there's a faintly unsavoury aftertaste of Hubbardry - telepathy, Nietzsche, supermen blah blah blah - except Hubbard could at least string a decent story together. This is like bad van Vogt stripped of all charm and art.

He had a shuddering distaste for most human beings; he once complained to me that most of them seemed so unfinished and shabby. Myers made me feel that the true historian is a poet rather than a scientist. He once said that the contemplation of individual men made him dream of suicide, and that he could reconcile himself to being human only by considering the rise and fall of civilisations.

I suspect Colin Wilson, whilst he may have been prone to a degree of ukippery, probably wasn't entirely a man without merits, but none of them are to be found in The Mind Parasites which was most certainly never a new kind of novel by any description. It's not often that I'm driven to such harsh words with regard to a book, but this really was a complete load of shit.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Earth Abides

George R. Stewart Earth Abides (1949)

The immediate wake of the second world war most likely seemed an appropriate time for consideration of worlds wiped clean of all but a scattering of humanity, I suppose that being the era during which it was made particularly apparent that some disasters could occur on a global scale if the political wind was blowing in a certain direction. George R. Stewart avoids the politics, cleaning his slate with an unexplained pandemic which at least allows him to concentrate on the issue of survival and how one might go forth after the fall of human civilisation; so despite the circumstances, Earth Abides at least kicks off on a positive note as something seeking solutions rather than simply identifying problems. The initial resemblance of Isherwood Williams' situation to that of Robinson Crusoe stranded upon his island is deliberate and is acknowledged:

One day, wanting to shake himself out of his apathy, he went to the Public Library, smashed a lock with his hammer, and after some browsing found himself (a little to his own amusement) walking out with Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson.

These books, however, did not interest him greatly. Crusoe's religious preoccupations seemed boring and rather silly. As for the Robinsons, he felt (as he had felt when he was a boy) that the ship remained for the family a kind of infinite grab-bag from which at any time they might take exactly what they wanted.

Ish is alone for most of the first part of the book, feeling his way and learning how to get by, mapping out the full extent of that which has been lost or which no longer applies:

As the world now was, a Pharisee or Sadducee might perhaps still follow the set rites of formalised religion, but the very humanity of the teachings of Jesus rendered them obsolete.

Accordingly the first part of the novel is arguably pastoral and maintains a tone not unlike that of Clifford D. Simak:

Looking out from the car, he saw only the handsome Dalmatian, sitting at the side of the road. Now being safe, Ish felt his attitude quickly changing. Actually the dogs had done him no harm, and indeed had not really even threatened him. During a few minutes he had thought of them as wild creatures thirsting for his blood. Now, they seemed a little pitiful, as if they might merely have been seeking the companionship of a man because of what they remembered long ago—of food laid out in dishes, of crackling logs in the fireplace, of a patting hand and a soothing voice. As he drove away, he wished them no bad luck, but rather hoped that they would manage occasionally to snap up a rabbit or pull down a calf.

Unfortunately for both the story and its protagonists, Ish and his small group of survivors come to rely upon their vanished civilisation much as the Robinsons did their ship, scavenging tinned or otherwise preserved food from the stores of deserted cities, living in vacated houses whilst the water and electricity last. Unable to let go of the past, they become a sort of cargo cult epitomised by one family who stock their post-apocalyptic home with top of the range consumer goods with nothing to power them. The group fails to adapt, just as we ourselves continue to fail to adapt to circumstances changing at ever-increasing rates, and so they are doomed even whilst the Earth itself abides.

The story is well told and makes a point worth making in easy, folksy terms, but the problem is that Earth Abides makes its point with the implausible metaphor of nothing much having changed two decades down the line. The survivors are still living in the ruined city, ranging ever further afield in search of goods canned more than twenty years earlier, and the fact that no-one has yet thought to do so much as plant a potato just to see what happens suggests that they're idiots, and it becomes increasingly difficult to feel sympathy. It's a shame for something which gets off to such a good start, and whilst it tries hard and kicks up all sorts of thought provoking ideas along the route, the whole ultimately feels unfortunately like a bit of a wasted effort. They get there in the end, abandoning the useless relics of what was and returning to social forms much closer to those of the Native Americans. I suppose Earth Abides needed to make the point of just why such relics should be discarded, but if felt like a long time spent learning a fairly simple lesson.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

The Coming Race

Edward Bulwer-Lytton The Coming Race (1871)
The Coming Race was hardly the first science-fiction novel to  rummage around within a hollow Earth. Journey to the Center of the Earth - to name but one of many - was published seven years earlier, and the general conceit probably goes back at least so far as Don Quixote's descent into the Caves of Montesinos in Cervantes' 1615 novel. The Coming Race would nevertheless appear to represent a seminal work of its type, and its popularity was once such as to seed public imagination with vril, the novel's mysterious energy source falling somewhere between nuclear power, electricity, telepathy, and the force from Star Wars. Mastery of vril is the reason for the technological superiority of that lot down there, as Bulwer-Lytton explained, inadvertently inspiring numerous occult types - Madam Blavatsky for one - seemingly ranging from those regarding vril as a metaphor for some existing esoteric force, to those apparently taking The Coming Race for fact disguised as fiction. Of the latter group one might arguably include Richard S. Shaver whose peculiar subterranean ramblings might be deemed heir to Bulwer-Lytton were they not so obviously sourced from a more personal, psychological mania, and vril seems to have become a totem for some of the weirder expressions of Nazism. Weirder still, at least to me, is that the name of Bovril, the popular pseudo-Marmitic English meat based drink derives from the idea of vril as life enhancing.

Anyway, before we go too far down that particular rabbit hole, it should be noted that Bulwer-Lytton's novel belongs more significantly to the utopian tradition, but taps into subterranean folk myth to a greater extent than others of its kind. The underworld as hell, if not uniquely Christian, seems to have been the exception to a general global rule. Most underworlds were traditionally a source of life, development, culture and so on, with the world as a metaphorical womb giving birth to the people and all which sustains them. This basic idea is found in Norse mythology, Sumer, Mexico, and pretty much everywhere else to greater or lesser degrees. Bulwer-Lytton's utopia is therefore home to a more developed race than our own, although the precise details of the warning delivered appear fairly loosely defined, or at least they did to me. Unfortunately I have a feeling this may be down to my own prejudices, specifically that which I expect to have been the sort of thing that would have mattered to a Victorian author of Bulwer-Lytton's credentials.

The Coming Race references ancient deluges in terms which suggest scientific foundations in the sort of catastrophism which squared fairly well with the emerging ideas of Darwinian evolution. Yet, whilst the novel appears to embrace Darwin up to a point, the Vril-ya - this being the name of the coming race in question - claim descent from frogs, which reads somewhat like a Christian parody of Darwin, not a million miles from the sort of critique asking where amongst its relatives was the orang-outang to be found. On the other hand, there's also the strong possibility that the supposed war between Church and Darwin has become somewhat exaggerated in recent times by the usual tub-thumping bores on both sides, and may not have been quite such a partisan affair as we have been led to believe. I suspect Bulwer-Lytton may not have given a great deal of thought to those aspects of his narrative which, with hindsight, seem as though they should be making some more strident observation, for he seems to find no contradiction in evolution discussed with such frequent references made to faith, and is more likely presenting a warning of the notion of progress as a virtue in itself. Progress was hardly a new idea in 1871, but the developed, or at least developing world was clearly still coming to terms with the idea of progress as something which could achieve such momentum as it did in the 1800s, and which had begun to reach into every aspect of modern life. Even humanity, so it seemed, was subject to progress, hence the disturbing possibility of more advanced expressions of humanity who might come to regard us as we did the less technologically orientated colonial subjects of the empire. Supermen and their mighty works would become popular during the century to come, notably with a great many folks who also enjoyed shouting and wearing uniforms, so it is interesting and possibly ironic on some level that Bulwer-Lytton describes the racial characteristics of the Vril-ya as close to Native American type, presumably by virtue of their having been the least understood ethnic group to have achieved levels of civilisation comparable to those of classical antiquity at the time of writing. Happily, the utopia of The Coming Race therefore constitutes relatively slim pickings for nutcases seeking Aryan material, excepting I suppose a few of the more obsessive Death In June types who could probably find some sort of ariosophic subtext in an episode of Dora the Explorer.

Established expressions of bullshit aside, The Coming Race is a fairly straightforward prompt towards the conclusion implied by Victorian notions of progress, that we might not necessarily be the pinnacle of God's creation, and that this is worth keeping in mind. Oddly I find this echoes Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment in that it too makes a lesson of the perils of ideology becoming too far divorced from the reality it endeavours to inform, which is of course the big problem with most versions of utopia. I personally found this one a little more readable than Crime and Punishment, although I can see why it has failed to remain quite so popular as at least a few of its contemporaries, lacking as it does the wit and verve of Verne, Wells, Shelley and others - not a bad novel by any stretch, but one that was quite definitively of its time; and although I'm sceptical that Bulwer-Lytton can really have been said to have predicted nuclear energy, the appearance of robots in a novel published in 1871 is not unimpressive.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Captain America: The Captain

Mark Gruenwald, Kieron Dwyer & Tom Morgan
Captain America: The Captain (1988)

Having watched A Brony Tale, the documentary examining the phenomenon of Bronies - adult and generally male devotees of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic - I availed myself of my nearest internet to opine that the notion of adult males dedicated to a cartoon show very specifically aimed at little girls struck me as lamentable. Naturally my observation was called into question by those who had somehow misread my comment as a call for something to be done about this situation, perhaps a rounding up of those accused so that they might be forced into camps and trained to take culture seriously because I was one of those snobbish cultural Nazis pompously declaring Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen superior to The Care Bears Movie when actually it wasn't because it's all about how you feel and stuff. I found this aggravating because it entirely missed my point, my point being that while I'm all for folks taking their pleasure where they find it, it's nevertheless depressing to see what I would respectfully identify as either more vital, sophisticated, or at least less corporate expressions of culture relegated to a dusty old trunk in a disused museum merely because it's too hard to think about stuff that isn't like totally awesome and like no-one cares about that boring old shit. It's elitist of me, I realise, but I'm running out of decent conversation, and I don't wish to find myself on my deathbed surrounded by shit-brained Pokémon champions quoting lines from the fucking Big Bang Theory because expecting anyone to grow up or even attempt to better themselves in any sense has somehow come to constitute a human rights violation.

Part of the reason I feel this way is, as I approach my fiftieth year, I sometimes wish someone had taken me aside back in 1987 just as I was about to blow another fifty quid on X-Men comics and pointed me in the direction of some of that which I am only now beginning to appreciate. Actually, someone probably did just that, but without the levels of righteousness necessary to get their point across; although I suppose we each of us have to get to wherever we are going in our own way, and at least I got there in the end, more or less.

So here's me, a full grown man reading Captain America rather than giving Crime and Punishment another go like the square-headed uptight opera loving culture Nazi I apparently am. The thing is here - I would hope - that I try to vary my input, keeping it broad up to a point, in contrast to an exclusive diet of inconsequential logo driven crap; and so I am able to appreciate this collection as something suggested for ages of nine and up, but hopefully not all the way up, without the same figure necessarily referring to my emotional and intellectual development; and so to business...

I'm not exactly sure what it was about Mark Gruenwald's Captain America that appealed to me given its being very much a traditional superhero title, and arguably at the other end of the spectrum from all the X-Men stuff upon which I was blowing my dole money. Possibly it is the very simplicity of the character and the idea, just some bloke dressed like a flag - it would be pop art were it a little more self-aware, which thankfully it wasn't. There's something honest about Captain America as an idea, an optimistic quality perhaps sprung from the how far our reality falls short of such ideals as are sketched here in three basic colours. In the wake of Watchmen, as comic book writers were busily infecting their characters with AIDS or having them arrested for shoplifting in pursuit of that grown-up dollar, Captain America was going up against the Serpent Society - a band of crooks in snake costumes; 'You look hungry,' his partner Nomad quips to Famine the mutant supervillain as they fight, 'have a knuckle sandwich!' and on every other page we find plot and motivation tirelessly reiterated and reinforced as thought bubbles.

'It's not my fault I've had rotten breaks all my life,' Diamondback silently reflects as Captain America races off in pursuit of the Viper. 'All it would take is the love of a good honest man like you and I could be a good person! A hero even! How can I make you see that?'

So you get the picture - this was closer to Roy Lichtenstein source material than Grant Morrison having post-ironic chuckles with pointedly hokey characters; and yet Gruenwald managed to turn the whole thing upside down and inside out without so much as a sly wink to camera, having the American government fire Captain America in order to replace him with someone more likely to toe the line, and less likely to ask awkward questions when assigned to protect America's corporate interests. It could have gone horribly wrong, or at least horribly condescending, but Gruenwald never lost sight of his audience or what they expected for their seventy-five cents. The run of comics collected here follows our hero as he's replaced by a well-intentioned bigot, in the process smuggling all sorts of uncomfortable questions under the radar - free speech, the constitution, abuse of the constitution, government corruption, and even a sneaky poke at US involvement in Nicaragua; and it does all of this without turning into Brought To Light, or doing anything too likely to alienate even budding Republicans, let alone third graders. Of course, one might argue that it cops out in the end with the source of corruption revealed as Red Skull's efforts to subvert a presumably otherwise honorable American government from within, and whilst this is no more implausible than anything else in this sort of spandex narrative, it comes late in the day and the point has already been made. We've already seen the light glinting from President Reagan's curiously serpentine fangs as he stands to address the nation, assuring us that both he and Nancy are fully recovered from having been turned into hybrid reptile creatures by the Viper a few pages before.

I was drawn to this collection by pure nostalgia, almost certain that it would have dated terribly on the grounds of my having been somewhat less literate when first I read it; and happily I am mistaken, not because this run of Captain America was Noam Chomsky in a star-spangled leotard, but because Gruenwald was a great comic book writer who exactly understood his very young audience and was able to communicate some pretty important ideas without talking down to anyone or skimping on the generic superhero thrills and spills. It's a shame that the kind of spirit in which this was produced seems less evident in the brand driven kid's entertainment of today.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Voice of the Fire

Alan Moore Voice of the Fire (1996)
I wasn't going to bother with this one on the grounds that although I generally adore the bollocks off of Moore's comics, I've never really got on well with his prose in isolation, finding it excessively florid, and rich, and difficult to digest without the pictures which at least serve to break things up a little. I wasn't going to bother with this one but I'd just read Lance Parkin's biography of the man, and there it was in Half Price Books for a couple of dollars...

Oddly, the prose is at least as baroque as I anticipated, possibly even more so, and yet it works wonderfully. Of course, you have to take it at a certain specific pace in order to get the full benefit, but the narrative proves to be of such fascinating detail and quality that you don't mind - a novel you hope not to finish rather than one which keeps you skipping ahead to see how many more pages must be endured; which is all jolly nice.

There aren't any pictures to keep you going, and the bearded one throws us in at the deep end with the first chapter, Hob's Hog which is written in the restricted vocabulary of a Neanderthal, and serves to demonstrate the sheer scale of Moore's skill - nearly sixty pages of a story told through its own unique grammar, and yet once over the shock, it's gripping to the point that you wish it were longer. Moore strikes a balance between the reader's innate love of decoding without sinking so far into character as to lose sight of the readership.

Make she a cat-noise, as for say that I make more loud as I may. Say she that chewing-thing is make in fire with dusts from sun-grass take, as grow here by, with little waters put to they. Eat I, and it is good, and good is fire-meat now in mouth of I. Is ox, by lick of he.

Actually, there are pictures, but they appear as the appendix and don't really add a great deal.

Voice of the Fire divides not so much into chapters as twelve short stories or scenarios, pertinent moments in the lives of twelve characters snatched at intervals from between the present and the past extending back so far as 4000BC. All are either set in Northampton, or on the land which is to become Northampton, or in lives which relate to the same by one means or another; and the final character is Moore himself as he writes the novel and discusses it with his brother and others. If they're not all true stories in the academic sense, they at least reference that which is understood as truth in terms of historical Northampton, and by extension the world beyond.

Moore's Northampton is at the centre of England, the universe, and culture itself. Having grown up in what is very roughly the same region of the country, this is the aspect of the novel I don't quite buy in so much any town or village with a permanent population going back at least a generation tends to form the centre of its own cosmos, and usually with reasons at least as valid as those given here; but for the sake of argument, we follow this one just to see where it will go.

I have to admit I find Moore's clannish dedication to his home town a little odd, even insular at worst, reminding me unfortunately of my father's partner, a Coventry born woman who has never been to London, not even by accident, and tells me I think you'll find that Coventry has a lot to offer you if you just give it a chance, Lawrence. I grew up in black hole towns of the kind which tend not to let people go without a fight. I couldn't wait to get out, and I'm not sure I really understand such dedication to accidents of birth and geography; so I'm surprised to find that a black hole town is exactly that which Moore describes here, despite the fact of his quite obviously loving the place. He loves it for the right reasons, I guess.

Here, unmasked, a process that distinguishes this place as incarnated in industrial times. The only constant features in the local-interest photograph collections are the mounds of bricks; the cranes against the sky. A peckish Saturn fresh run out of young, the town devours itself. Everything grand we had, we tore to bits. Our castles, our emporiums, our witches and our glorious poets. Smash it up, set fire to it and stick it in the fucking madhouse. Jesus Christ.

The humour is very, very black, and the book is notably chock full of severed limbs, feet, heads, madness, folks burned at the stake, and the smelliest descriptions of sexual acts you could ever wish to read. It's almost a three-hundred page Hogarth cartoon, and its purpose is similarly destructive in pursuit of something better. Specifically Voice of the Fire is, at its most basic level, the mapping out of territory - and is as such not a million miles from what I suspect Moore's Big Numbers might have done had it ever been completed; and the territory is mapped out as it is in the short, brutal lives of its victims because:

The Dreamtime of each town is an essence that precedes the form. The web of joke, remembrance and story is a vital infrastructure on which the solid and material plane is standing. A town of pure idea, erected only in the mind's eye of the population, yet this is our only true foundation.

...and the reason for this mapping is to restore the songline so that the fabric of the world shall mend about it. In other words, the novel and its writing have a perhaps ritual function falling somewhere between confession in the religious sense and just plain old making the world a better place, which - before anyone feels inclined to get pissy - is more or less by its own admission.

'So what's this book about, then?'

It's about the vital message that the stiff lips of decapitated men still shape; the testament of black and spectral dogs written in piss across our bad dreams. It's about raising the dead to tell us what they know. It is a bridge, a crossing-point, a worn spot in the curtain between our world and the underworld, between the mortar and the myth, fact and fiction, a threadbare gauze no thicker than a page. It's about the powerful glossolalia of witches and their magical revision of the texts we live in.

Which brings us back to the Voice of the Fire itself:

We had our fun, and at the end of it they fetched us out and burned us both to dust. They had a stronger Magic. Though their books and words were lifeless, drear and not so pretty as our own, they had a great heaviness, and so at last they dragged us down. Our art concerns all that may change or move in life, but with their endless writ they seek to make life still, that soon it shall be suffocated, crushed beneath their manuscripts. For my part, I would sooner have the Fire. At least it dances. Passion is not strange to it.

So, for the sake of the rest of us, Northampton may as well stand in for where you're at, and Alan Moore has once again produced something which feels like the most important thing you've ever read while you're reading it, something which seems to extend far beyond its own pages and therefore influences your environment.

If this all sounds somewhat like the promise of a twelve album Gentle Giant boxed set and no more sweets until you've listened to the whole fucking thing, the details to remember are that this is a great book, and is not in any way difficult to follow despite how it may appear from a distance or from the impression I may have given with my fumbling description, and it's probably quite an important book too.

I wasn't planning on reading Jerusalem given its supposed mammoth word count combined with reservations regarding Moore's prose as stated somewhere above, but after this one, I don't want to miss it.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Turbulent Times

John Eden (editor) Turbulent Times 10 (2014)
This one falls some way outside of the usual parameters in context of the sort of thing I tend to review but fuck it - John Eden is one of those people who has always managed to make the world in his immediate vicinity a much more interesting place to be, and one of the few people I've known for any length of time who is yet to inspire me to any clandestine two-faced mutterings on the topic of perceived twattery during paranoid or otherwise less charitable interludes. His work deserves support is what I am trying to say, and so here we are.

To briefly fly off in another direction entirely, Philip Purser-Hallard's Of the City of the Saved... describes a technological afterlife amounting to the Christian heaven wherein everyone who has ever lived mingles with everyone else who has ever lived. Oddly, I feel I'm beginning to get some idea of how this might feel, because nothing ever goes away forever, at least not any more. I read earlier editions of Turbulent Times back in the nineties. I am now facebook friends with others I knew at the same time, some of whom will also recall both this magazine and some of the artists featured. Weirdest of all - at least to me - was finding myself recommending this to Simon who used to work in Discovery Records in Stratford-on-Avon when I was at school over thirty years ago, and who sold me my copy of Never Mind the Bollocks. It's not like we were best mates or anything, but he turned up as a friend of a friend on facebook, and we began talking, and it turned out that he's still a big fan of both vinyl records and printed fanzines thirty plus years down the line. He'd just bought the new album by Philip Best's Consumer Electronics, just as I come across references to the same Philip Best in my 1983 diary which I'm presently transcribing to electronic form; and then a different Simon, specifically one of the Ceramic Hobs, informs me of the astonishing fact that Philip Best is moving to Austin, which is quite near where I now live, and that he has been following my blog, An Englishman in Texas. Anyway, Simon - the one who once sold me Never Mind the Bollocks - dutifully sent away for Turbulent Times and enjoyed it just as I hoped he would; and of course he did because he's a man of taste and it's a blummin' good read.

Anyway, the point of this is that sometimes I'm no longer quite sure there's still such a thing as the past. Recent eras have developed into a permanent present, and there's something really satisfying about finding a fanzine made of ink, paper, and staples in my mailbox in 2014. Since the advent of the internet and any old wanker being able to share their inconsequential thoughts with an indifferent universe by means costing no pennies, the sort of commitment required to achieve printed form has come to mean a great deal more than was once the case; and Turbulent Times is accordingly one hell of a lot more fun than reading something off a screen.

This issue covers a ton of people - musicians, noise artists, and general oddballs - about whom I previously knew nothing, and whose work I may not even like should I ever hear it, but who nevertheless provide the foundations of fascinating and witty reading. There's also the endlessly entertaining Ceramic Hobs interviewed, and a pleasantly unequivocal discussion of fascist tendencies in weirdy music, and Elizabeth Veldon countering the sausagery of the noise scene. Figurative breaths of fresh air occur with some frequency.

It's very strange being nearly fifty years old and reading this magazine in Texas, but it has reminded me how exciting it can be to discover this sort of stuff and specifically in this way. It's great to know that this exists and that it definitively exists right now, as opposed to representing another virtual recycling endlessly reproduced on a thousand screens for a few moments before the passive and not really too bothered consumer clicks onto something else. Turbulent Times is nothing less than inspirational.

Buy it here while you can.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

The Universe Maker

A.E. van Vogt The Universe Maker (1953)

I suspect there may be a sort of physics of second hand books if A.E. van Vogt is anything to go by. Of the twenty or so van Vogt titles I now have on my shelves - all picked up from second hand places - the most memorable titles all seem to have appeared amongst the first ten or so that I came across. It could be that I've simply grown tired of his weird, inscrutable exercises in rambling surrealism, I suppose, although I prefer the theory that his better works are the ones which tended to sell well, and so eventually found their way to branches of Oxfam, Half Price or wherever in the greatest numbers; so when I now encounter a van Vogt title I've not read, the likelihood is that it will be one of the lesser works. That's my theory anyway.

The Universe Maker begins with the sort of dynamic thrust that promises something at least as good as The Mind Cage or The Weapon Makers, and our man is clearly on top form with his characteristically dense and hypnotically angular prose:

Peering out through the glass, Cargill had the initial impression that he was looking onto a well-kept park. The impression changed. For through the lattice work of the shrubbery he could see a street. It was the kind of street men dream about in moments of magical imagination. It wound through tall trees, among palms and fruit trees. It had shop windows fronting oddly shaped buildings that nestled among the greenery. Hidden lights spread a mellow brightness into the curves and corners. The afternoon had become quite dark and every window glowed as from some inner warmth. He had a tantalising vision of interiors that were different from anything he had ever seen.

All this came from only a glimpse as viewed through the lattice work of a rose arbour. Cargill drew back, trembling. He had had his first look at a city of hundreds of years in the future. It was an exhilarating experience.

Unfortunately it develops into a fairly bewildering experience as once again van Vogt spins a peculiar yarn which veers off in random directions, concentrating all the while on the direct subjective experience of the main character and so leaving certain crucial developments open to the reader's interpretation. It's a story told as though through just one half of a conversation, which unfortunately suffers from van Vogt's typically oblique narrative. Although given the subject, there probably wasn't any other way of telling it.

The story takes Morton Cargill, a war veteran, into his own remote future to be executed so as to heal a sort of inherited psychic wound inhabiting the descendent of a girl he accidentally killed in a car accident back during his lifetime, except he didn't actually kill her after all, and he himself becomes the future Shadow leader demanding his own execution; or something like that. The narrative also takes in a civil war between the ground and those who have chosen to live in the sky, and the Shadows from an even more distant future. Fuck knows what's going on.

Curiously, the theme of the novel would appear to relate to what I suspect may be van Vogt's own peculiar cosmology, a universe in which matter is a minor property of energy, and we can inherit  psychological damage suffered by our ancestors. I say van Vogt's own, but I suppose some of it may come from Korzybski's general semantics, or from Dianetics with which he was very much involved at the time, and certainly the descendants of Marie Chanette suffering from the trauma of the accident which killed her seems reminiscent of Hubbard's engrams. There appears to be a lot more to it than can be summarised in a single paragraph, and unfortunately with van Vogt being van Vogt, it's quite difficult to pick out a succinct quotation to illustrate what I think he's talking about. There's also the further difficulty of atmospheric effect being pretty much indivisible from meaning in the van Vogtian narrative.

What this amounts to is a novel which feels quite profound, potentially A.E. van Vogt's own VALIS or similar, but which is quite difficult to follow; although on the positive side, it's also very short so the confusion doesn't have time to become annoying.

I think this means that The Universe Maker is good, and it certainly suggests it may be worth my taking another shot at it once my brain has recovered.